Badass Scientist of the Week: Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958) was a biophysicist and X-Ray crystallographer who made important and controversial contributions to our current understanding of DNA. She graduated from Cambridge in 1941, then went to study carbon and graphite microstructures for the British Coal Utilization Research Association before returning to Cambridge to earn her doctorate in 1945. Franklin then worked in Paris for a period, where she learned X-ray diffraction techniques, then she returned in 1951 to work as a research associate at King’s College, London. It was here she began to solve the mystery of DNA’s structure. Scientists knew that DNA was a genetic material, capable of storing the information needed to create a living being, but its structure and inner workings were still largely a mystery. Franklin worked with Maurice Wilkins, who at first thought she was his assistant—he was quickly set straight, but the university environment was not a friendly one for Franklin, with male-only dining halls and pubs. Still, Franklin persisted with her work, applying X-Ray diffraction techniques to create crystallographic portraits of DNA, which J. D. Bernal called “the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” Franklin discovered that DNA has two forms, and invented an ingenious method to separate them. She discovered that the helical structure of DNA has two strands, that the backbone of DNA lies on the outside, and noted details about its shape and size. But she before she could discover how the bases paired inside the helix—the secret to heredity—James Watson and Francis Crick figured it out first. But not entirely on their own. Maurice Wilkins, who had a tense relationship with Franklin, showed Watson one of Franklin’s crystallographic portraits. Watson at once saw the solution to their question, and he and Crick published their findings—Franklin didn’t realise the slight, assuming they had fairly beaten her to the discovery. She later moved to J. D. Bernal’s lab to work on the tobacco mosaic virus and polio, but became ill with ovarian cancer in 1956, and died two years later. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick made it clear that Franklin’s work played an essential role in their discovery, but since the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, Franklin—despite her tenacity, ingenuity and badassery—was not even acknowledged.